Arit Okpo: Which one is the real African culture? [NEW VOICES]

by Arit Okpo

When I was growing up, I read lots of Enid Blyton and so I spent afternoons in a garden shack enjoying lashings of ginger beer with the Famous Five and Secret Seven. When I was going to Secondary School, I excitedly anticipated mentoring and guidance from the Seniors a la Mallory Towers, imagine the shock the first time I was told to “Come here and kneel down!” for no reason other than that I was breathing.

I had trouble mastering local soups and dishes, earning lots of smh moments from my mother. However, my natural aptitude started to show up with stir fries and sauces and pasta and grills, distinctly continental fare. When I’m feeling healthy, I would never think of juiced bitterleaf or lemongrass tea to start my day, a kale, pineapple and celery smoothie is more the ticket.

Now, I would in no way consider myself to be bougie or appropriating a culture that is not my own, these are my realities in the world that I live in. In my culture as a 21st-century African woman, coffee dates where we talk about Zumba versus yoga are just as African as any stereotype you could possibly imagine.

So, when we define the new African culture, what is it…really? When returnees from the diaspora attempt to recreate the realities that they have gotten used to in their various locations around the world and open coffee shops, yoga studios or sandwich and soup cafes, are they any less African than the people who still believe that pounded yam and amala are the only authentic local cuisines and that our culture has been lost to western influences?

It’s a difficult position many young Africans find themselves in, anyone with data is introduced to, so immersed in a world that soon becomes all too real. Our priorities evolve or adjust to suit this global dynamic and aspects of the culture that we grew up with either disappear or are refashioned to suit.

I cannot imagine the sacrilege of a local soup eaten with oats, much less cabbage eba. But the health-conscious African enjoys these viable options. I hear of oilless okra soup, Egusi cooked with kale, baked moimoi, puff puff stuffed with either sweet or savoury fillings and much more. Flavour combinations are being turned on their heads and the food we used to know like the back of our hands now holds a passport and speaks with a British influenced accent.

Our local foods, usually the biggest indication of a culture, are evolving to meet a new global reality. Are we losing or growing?

Before, we would buy local slippers from footwear designers from the North of Nigeria, using designs and methods handed down century by century. These local slippers soon started incorporating ankara and today, we have local footwear designers touting avant-garde products as created from the best Italian leather and with modern and unexpected designs. Is this discarding our culture or evolving it?

I’m a bit torn on this, there are many things that I worry we are losing. Do these beautiful new clothing designs mean growth, or should I mourn the loss of the art of traditional adire and aso-oke weaving? Should I be sad that instead of putting together your own unique combination of spices for your soups and stews, you can simply buy a mix from the supermarket? Many of our countries are losing their languages, but should I mourn the loss of a language when the world today communicates in English, French, Spanish or Mandarin?

Culture is a constantly evolving concept; it is also as real to any people as its relevance in place and time. Culture to you does not mean culture to me, and so the decision on what should be preserved and what should be let go of is as individual as the tastes that govern personal style.

In the old days, we had griots who absorbed our history and shared it with the next generation. Are they outdated in the world today, or are we, with our smartphones and social media accounts, the collective griots of our individual cultures?

I honestly don’t know, the answer is as much yours as it is mine.


Arit is a highly versatile Content Producer, Presenter, Writer and Speaker. She currently produces and presents The Crunch, the flagship news show for the Ebonylife TV platform, where she discusses and analyses current affairs issues and stories. Arit has also presented travel show Destinations Africa; politics show Naija Politics and cooking show Chefrican, also on the Ebonylife TV platform. She is passionate about telling the African story from a positive and powerful perspective

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